A group of Iowa state lawmakers, consisting of five Democrats and one Republican, have sent Gov. Terry Branstad (R) a letter urging him to rethink his decision to shut down a prison mental health care ward in the state.
According to the San Francisco Chronicle, the lawmakers argue that the ward’s closure will be disruptive to inmates’ care, and that Branstad’s fiscal argument for closing the unit comes up short:
The proposed budget that Branstad put forward in February calls for closure of the $26 million, 200-bed facility in 2014. Prisoners would be transferred to prison medical units in Clarinda and Coralville and the new state penitentiary in Fort Madison. [...]
Tim Albrecht, a spokesman for the governor, said closing the facility and dispersing its inmates “more effectively utilizes the department’s resources” and inmates with mental health needs “will receive similar, if not greater, mental health care under this new plan.”
The lawmakers who sent the letter expressed concern that prisoners with mental health needs don’t acclimate well to change and by mixing them with the general inmate population it could stimulate behaviors that create an unsafe the working environment for corrections staff.
The lawmakers also say the building should be given a longer lifespan since the Legislature recently invested $18 million to upgrade the facility.
Branstad’s state budget director also stated that the projected savings from closing the mental health unit is $8 million — a drop in the bucket compared to Branstad’s $6.2 billion budget for fiscal year 2013.
Mental health care issues take a particularly harsh toll on the incarcerated population, and the lawmakers raising concerns to Branstad are correct in stating that abruptly removing them from their treatment centers will have a negative effect on their care and well-being. State budget cuts to mental health care programs have already encouraged a trend where prisons become de-facto asylums, and Branstad’s closure of the Iowa jail’s mental health ward will only exacerbate that problem by denying and disrupting inmates’ care.